“Ms. Dahlstrom… can you read my paper?”
English 11 has a paper due in an hour and a half. Originally, I hadn’t intended that they would turn in their first literary essay at 10:00 PM on a Friday night. It had been Tuesday morning, at the beginning of class. Later, remembering that our department chair, like the Language Arts department at Ingraham, had asked us to filter all of our essays through the plagiarism-catching net of Turnitin.com, I changed the deadline to that evening, to give dorm students a maximum-length window of uneven computer use in which to submit their papers.
We didn’t finish The Crucible with as much time to spare as I’d expected, so the deadline was pushed back once again, this time to Friday. Ten days ago, the students were grateful. Tonight, perhaps they are less so.
At Ingraham, we often talked about the difficulty of teaching writing to high school students. “Drafting days” meant walking in circles for 275 minutes, keeping mental track of the progress and composition of 150 students and their respective topics, paragraphs and thesis statements. I frequently ended these days exhausted and discouraged, convinced that my two minutes of advice per student wouldn’t sink in, wouldn’t result in the writing reconstruction that many of my students so badly needed.
Often, I was right. Because while it is possible to teach some things quite well in a classroom of 30 students, even 30 urban ninth graders, I’ve grown convinced that writing isn’t one of them. Writing requires space, time and attention, resources sorely lacking in the crowded classrooms of underfunded public schools.
I’m learning to teach writing here. My largest class at BFA has 18 students, and my smallest has ten. These numbers are a gift, I know, rare and precious. When I assigned this essay three weeks ago, I knew that I would have time to check in with them, to make sure that everyone had a thesis, outline and rough draft to prevent them from recklessly pasting a Wikipedia article into a plagiarism filter on Friday afternoon. What I didn’t anticipate, couldn’t have imagined, was having time to actually read, reread, advise and edit so many of their essays beforehand.
With the exception of one day of typing in the library, none of this has happened in class. Students have found me in their study hall, during lunch, before and after school. They are eager and conscientious. Grades motivate some of them; others desire to write well in preparation for college. An intriguing few take the opportunity to delve into the human soul, analyzing characters from The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible as if they were real people, close friends.
It’s a humbling privilege to find myself in a place where I have the time and space to teach people to write. This teaching isn’t easy; in many ways it is as exhausting as pacing the room full of ninth graders. The patience required is a daily test of my trust in God, as I realize my own limitations, my tendency to be rushed or inhospitable. I’m thankful for the space to keep learning, the time to teach and the students who care enough to keep showing up, asking me difficult questions, and pouring teenaged energy into these challenges.